Hodder & Stoughton | 2017 (4 May) | 304p | Review copy | Buy the book
People love to be shocked and Simon Newman loves to shock them. He does it through the website he runs with his friend Thierry – ‘Journey to the Dark Side’. And while it’s Thierry who puts up the money, it’s Simon who makes the journeys. The latest trip is dark indeed. It takes him into the depths of the Cwm Pot caves in Wales where years before a number of cavers had died. Their bodies were never retrieved. Perfectly ghoulish material for the website if Simon can get down to them and film them. But it isn’t easy. Following a nasty climbing accident, Simon needs to get his nerve back and he’s not sure that this is the way to do it, especially when he meets the guide who will take him into the underworld. Ed reminds Simon of Quint, the demonic shark catcher of Jaws. It doesn’t bode well. But what happens is far worse that even Simon could have imagined.
It’s all a huge success on the website, of course, so Thierry is keen to send Simon off on the trail of new corpses – this time scattered on the highest slopes of Mount Everest. This will be the ultimate challenge. But Simon did not come out the caves the same man who went in. Terror is now his constant companion.
A new book by Sarah Lotz is always a grand occasion to celebrate. I love her sense of horror. It takes us out of the life we know but not completely. There’s enough of the real about this horror to scare me very much indeed, while it also carries me to places where anything can and will happen – whether it’s on a crashed plane or a stranded cruise ship. Now it’s a mountain, Everest, that is already deadly in itself, just for being there, the goal that climbers aspire to quite literally. But there are horrors on that mountain, and truths that cannot be escaped. I’m getting shivers just thinking about it.
Ghostly tales of terror on mountains are among my favourites and I can think of a few that I’ve read over the last year or two (thinking of Ararat most recently, as well as Michelle Paver’s Thin Air and Dan Simmons’ The Abominable). The White Road fits well into this tradition and has confirmed my determination never to set foot on a mountain again. It’s a miracle I’ve been in a plane since reading Sarah Lotz’s The Three and I’ve certainly not gone near a boat since Day Four. I just hope she doesn’t turn her attention next to sun-soaked palm-treed white sandy beaches.
The White Road‘s opening section in the caves is absolutely superb and one of the most claustrophobic and utterly terrifying tales that I’ve ever read. Told by Simon in his own words, the foreboding oppresses from the very first line. We know something dreadful is going to happen and we know it will never leave Simon. The character of Ed the guide is extraordinary – fully repulsive and yet strangely vulnerable. Sarah Lotz must be congratulated for this portrait. I’ve not read anyone like Ed before. This section is so powerful and memorable. The mountain sections have a lot to do to follow these cave scenes and, while they almost equal it, they don’t quite.
I love the descriptions of Everest’s devastating cold and lack of air. It’s clearly out to kill those who have the audacity to ascend it and survival isn’t assumed by any of the people in the novel. They each have their own stories and they have an impact on Simon, whose voice continues to describe what happens. He changes, and not just through fear. Everest can take people to the edge of death but the horror can push them over it. Whether the terror comes from within or without is up to the reader to judge but it is most certainly oppressive and very frightening.
Although Simon isn’t the most likeable of people – as I’m sure he’d admit – he is worth getting to know and our feelings towards him do change as he changes. He surprises us at times, just as the story surprises. It takes us in all kinds of directions, lulling us into a false sense of security, shocking us once again, moving to and from the mountain, reminding us of the cave. This is a very well-structured story and Simon’s narration, always catchy, is very compelling indeed. At just over 300 pages, this is a short novel and I’d suggest you read it in one go – at night, in the dark.
The mind boggles as I think what Sarah Lotz will do to us next, where she will take us. I’ll be there every step of the way, maybe with my hands in front of my eyes and never making the mistake of looking down.